Synodality: The Latest Ecclesiastical MacGuffin

Catholic film director Alfred Hitchcock popularized the notion of the “MacGuffin” in motion pictures. This, according to Wikipedia, is “an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself.” It might be the briefcase that a spy carries into a train terminal in the opening sequence of the film — which has been captured by the cameraman in an extreme close-up. Inside is “the secret.” Another spy with shifty eyes is after the briefcase… then a throat gets slit, or a head banged, or — my favorite — a handkerchief with chloroform is placed over a mouth and the briefcase with its secret is captured, the significance of this being heightened by a tense film score. And with that, the plot takes off.

Since Hitchcock, there have been different MacGuffin theories in Hollywood, but I will not bore you with that. The point is that there is not much to the MacGuffin itself, sometimes there is nothing at all. But without it, the attention of the audience is not captured and the action of the characters is meaningless. It is a device of filmmaking that is still, apparently, very much in use.

Until recently, ecumenism was the great ecclesiastical MacGuffin. What is it? You will get various explanations. “The search for the unity of Christians” is probably the simplest. But what does that mean? According to the Catholic tradition as summarized by Pope Pius XI,

The unity of Christians cannot be otherwise obtained than by securing the return of the separated to the one true Church of Christ from which they once unhappily withdrew. To the one true Church of Christ, We say, that stands forth before all, and that by the will of its Founder will remain forever the same as when He Himself established it for the salvation of all mankind.

But that is not what ecumenism or the “unity of Christians” is to most ecumenists, e.g., Cardinal Walter Kasper, who disparages such a vision of the unity of Christians as “an ecumenism of return.”

I recall meeting a priest almost twenty years ago who was the head of ecumenical affairs for the Archdiocese of Boston. We were both guests in another priest’s rectory where we were invited to meet the new Melkite Bishop of the Eparchy of Newton, the Most Rev. Cyril Salim Bustros. (It was purely my connection to Brother Francis, himself a Melkite from Lebanon, that landed me this unusual invite.) During the small talk that happened before the dinner, I was seated near the ecumenical priest from Boston. He was a very agreeable man and quite an engaging conversationalist. As we had the sanguine temperament in common, it was not hard for us to find something to talk about.

When I heard of his position at the chancery, I asked him if it was alright to put a question to him about his work. He affably agreed, somewhat to the chagrin of the venerable Maronite Chorbishop who was our host. To my question — “What is the goal of ecumenism?” — the head of the office of ecumenical affairs for the Archdiocese of Boston did not really have an answer other than to seek Christian unity. I asked him what that would look like, in other words, what is the actual goal or purpose? How do we know it has been accomplished? The answer was a memorable one: “We’ll know it when we see it.” I perhaps exceeded the bounds of social convention when I pointed out that his work seemed to be without a purpose.

Upon reflection, I think his answer was supposed to be profound — as is the pseudo-profundity, “It’s not about the destination but the journey” — but it struck me then as shallow at best, empty at worst. That it is empty is what makes it a MacGuffin. There is nothing to it, but without it, the action of the main characters in the drama makes no sense at all.

In the case of the Church, what is the action that the MacGuffin of ecumenism makes sense of? To put it simply, watering down the Catholic religion so that there is nothing in it to offend those who do not believe it. We have changed our Mass so that a Calvinist cannot reasonably find fault with it; we have watered down our morals so that secularists are unchallenged by them; we have made Lent something that a worldly bon vivant would find unobjectionable; we have transformed our social teaching into a polite bourgeoisie liberalism that vaguely resembles those BLM signs found on the lawns of prosperous, guilt-ridden progressivists of European descent, etc. Everything in the faith took an “ecumenical dimension” (two words that show up twenty-two times in the 1992 document, Directory for the Application of Priciples and Norms of Ecumenism), but so much of the faith was lost along the way — and this for an elusive goal that we are assured by high-ranking ecumenists is not about bringing people into the Catholic Church.

I know that there are Catholics engaged in ecumenical dialogue who labor to bring people into the Church. I have met one, a committed Catholic scholar who has worked at the very highest levels of official ecumenical dialogue. But, even he admitted to me that he is rare bird in that aviary. My problem is not with those few who use ecumenism as a tool for bringing about God’s glory and the salvation of souls through genuine Christian unity in the Catholic Church; my problem is with those who use ecumenism to alter every aspect of authentic Catholicism in the beautiful name of Christian unity.

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Today we have a new MacGuffin. Its name is “synodality.”

Speaking recently to a Ukrainian Catholic friend who is well versed in the authentic Eastern Christian tradition of Church synods, I was assured that the occidental synodality being championed now is a bureaucratic simulacrum of the real thing.

In the Christian East, aside from ecumenical synods (which we Westerners call ecumenical councils”), whose main purpose is to define dogma against heresy, synods were local or regional affairs. They were “medicinal” in character as they involved the spiritual fathers of the people (the bishops and lower clergy — especially the monastic clergy) assembling to gauge the health of God’s people and to administer remedies for their spiritual ailments. Thus, they were, by an analogy to a modern model, “associations of psychiatric clinics,” inasmuch as their activity was directed toward the true healing of the soul (the psyche). I say “associations” because such synods employed a combination of local churches (dioceses, or eparchies as they are called in the East) and ecclesial communities (e.g., monasteries) for their medicinal purposes. The point of reference in this process was, after the Holy Scriptures, the teaching of the Desert Fathers, whose approach to spiritual therapy was based upon what we Westerners would call ascetical and mystical theology. The lofty purpose of the synod was this: for the spiritual fathers, who had themselves been healed of sin and its effects through theosis, to heal the souls of their people by applying whatever medicine was needed at the moment. In other words, the synod was a primarily pastoral event that had everything to do with remedying the ailments of sin by curing disordered passions, and then sanctifying the faithful by teaching them watchfulness in prayer.

By contrast, the upcoming Synod on Synodality is “a three-year process of listening and dialogue….” (USCCB web page on the Synod on Synodality). What will this “listening and dialogue” concern? The answer is outlined in the fifty-page instrumentum laboris (working document) authored by a committee of twenty-two people and approved by Pope Francis. The National Catholic Register reports this of the instrumentum laboris:

Drawing on listening sessions already conducted worldwide at the diocesan, national and continental level, it covers such hot-button topics as women deacons, priestly celibacy, LGBTQ outreach, and highlights a desire for new institutional bodies to allow for greater participation in decision-making by the “People of God.”

At the same time, some of the questions it frames for discussion allude to possible major changes in how the Church operates around the world, through the embrace of an open-ended “synodal” process that entails ongoing dialogue and discernment. The approach is so different, in fact, the document states, that new formation programs will need to be developed “at all levels of ecclesial life and for all the Baptized,” adding that candidates for ordained ministry “must be trained in a synodal style and mentality.”

The text also outlines a “synodal method” of spirituality focused on listening to the Holy Spirit and “discerning the signs of the times.”

As with yesteryear’s ecumenism, today’s synodality is a neologism whose ubiquitous tentacles are intended to reach into every aspect of ecclesiastical life for every Catholic, complete with its own spirituality (rooted in what tradition?) and methods of discernment (Ignatian?).

When we consider that the homosexualist Jesuit, Father James Martin, is among the American delegates to the Synod, there is deep cause for concern. I will leave it to the reader’s imagination to figure out how Father Martin would answer this question, which comes right out of the instrumentum laboris:

“How can we create spaces where those who feel hurt by the Church and unwelcomed by the community feel recognized, received, free to ask questions and not judged? In the light of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, what concrete steps are needed to welcome those who feel excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality (for example, remarried divorcees, people in polygamous marriages, LGBTQ+ people, etc.)?”

Bishop Athanasius Schneider wrote a forceful critique of the instrumentum laboris that is brief and very much worth reading. Here I will quote from one of his introductory paragraphs and then his closing paragraphs, whose conclusions are backed up by passages he cites in the body of his article:

This Working Document or Instrumentum appears to undermine the Divine constitution and the Apostolic character of the life and mission of the Catholic Church, substituting for them an invented “synodal church,” inspired predominantly by Protestant, social and anthropocentric categories. […]

The Instrumentum Laboris for the October 2023 Session of the Synod on Synodality essentially promotes, albeit in a more sophisticated manner, the same heterodox ideas put forward by the German Synodal Path.

It substitutes the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church with a fantasy “synodal church” that is worldly, bureaucratic, anthropocentric, neo-Pelagian, and hierarchically and doctrinally vague — all the while masking these features behind unctuous expressions such as “conversation in the spirit.”

But we do not believe in — nor would anyone give his life for — a “synodal church.” We believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and we hold fast to His unchanging divine truth, for which countless Catholic martyrs have shed their blood.

In the body of the good bishop’s critique, he points out the serious dogmatic problem with reopening the discussion of women’s ordination to the deaconate. The Church has infallibly ruled out female ordination, and since the sacrament of Holy Orders is one sacrament, women cannot be ordained at all. His Excellency also finds problematic the Synod’s declared openness to overturning the traditional discipline of priestly celibacy. (To those who treat this as a simple disciplinary question, I answer that priestly celibacy is an apostolic tradition, not a “mere discipline.”)

Some may think that all these cautionary words about the Synod on Synodality are premature. Let us not forget that the Synod on the Family gave us the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (written, at least in part, by Pope Francis’ soon-to-be appointed Prefect of the DDF). That document, which is not infallible, effectively encouraged habitual mortal sin and, worse, enabled grave sacrilege of the Holy Eucharist. Given this, given the problems in the instrument laboris, and given some of the Synod’s personnel, there is no cause for optimism regarding the Synod on Synodality. Rather, there is cause for concern that this catastrophic event will bring a horrible chastisement upon the Church.

So far removed from the tradition of synodality that it nominally emulates, this new process is already showing itself to be another ecclesiastical MacGuffin, perhaps even upstaging its antecedent, ecumenism. As a MacGuffin, synodality is “insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself,” but is a very useful theatrical tool to enable further progressivist revolution in the Church.

May God have mercy on us all.